'A little shell shocked'

April 23, 2007 12:00 am

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

The largest and poorest tribe in California became $90 million on Friday.

"This is pretty monumental," said Yurok Tribe deputy executive director Reweti Wiki after receiving confirmation from the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., late Friday afternoon. "Everybody's a little shell-shocked."

The federal agency removed a temporary hold on the money, following a decision last month to award all of the remaining funds from the 1988 Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act to the Yurok Tribe.

That act had partitioned the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes' reservations and set up a fund with more than $56 million in timber money that the U.S. government made from the lands, plus another $10 million in federal money. During nearly two decades of legal disputes, the funds have grown to about $90 million.

Recently, the Yurok Tribe agreed to waive claims, or arguments of wrongdoing, against the U.S. government, a step that the tribe had refused to take in the years following the settlement agreement.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe had waived claims and by 1991, had received more than $31 million. Hoopa tribal members have argued that the Yurok Tribe missed its chance for a cut.

But the U.S. Department of the Interior decided last month that the Yurok Tribe could still comply with that provision of the Settlement Act.

The Hoopa Valley Tribe has objected, calling today's action reprehensible.

The trust fund money was meant to repay the timber sales from Hoopa lands, said Hoopa Tribal Chairman Clifford Lyle Marshall.

"The Settlement Act gave the Yurok Tribe until November 1993 to drop its litigation and obtain certain benefits; it refused to do so," Marshall said. "Now that they lost in the courts they have used lobbying tactics at the Department of Interior to reverse the last decade of legal and administrative decisions saying they could not access this money."

The Hoopa Valley Tribe had appealed the Interior Department decision, asked Congress to intervene and is now considering legal steps. Yurok Tribe leaders consider the argument finished.

"We believe it's fair," Wiki said of the outcome.

Tribal leaders directed the money into a diversified portfolio, but have not yet considered options. Under the tribe's constitution, members must vote on a plan to manage the fund.

"We want to make sure that the people's desires are heard and that we develop a solid plan that will lead the Yurok Tribe well into the future," said tribal chairwoman Maria Tripp.

The Yurok Tribal Council will begin hosting meetings with members and mailing out information.

"At this stage, we have no plans at all," Wiki said.

The Yurok Tribe has about 5,000 members and poverty rates average about 80 percent on the reservation. The tribe's more than 63,000-acre reservation extends about a mile along either side of the Klamath River, stretching from the waterway's mouth for 44 miles. Groups such as Green Diamond Resource Co. and the U.S. government still own parts of the tribe's reservation and ancestral lands.

About 70 percent of the reservation lacks basic telephone and electricity service. The reservation also lacks income such as a tax base, gaming or business revenues to maintain infrastructure and build its economy.

Yurok leaders have battled for years to secure the Settlement Act money, regularly traveling to Washington, D.C., to testify at congressional and committee hearings and to meet with various politicians.

U.S. Interior Department officials called the tribe with the news on Friday morning and tribal officials tracked the issue all day before confirming the fund's transfer.

"This has been a long time coming," Wiki said.

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